“I’m skeptical of alt-country. A lot of it … I assume that it will be boring,” says Patrick Sullivan, singer-guitarist for Brooklyn-based country-rock band Oakley Hall.
He’s trying to explain the difference between his band and others, especially indie bands that bring country elements to their music. He thinks for a second and says, “We try to make weird choices, fuck with sounds and upturn notions. Our biggest fear is being seen as run of the mill.”
Oakley Hall is not run of the mill. Respected in New York for their raucous live shows, they are a psychedelic country band with an amped-up fiddle and a banjo-strung guitar. They play at maximum volume and with minimal respect for strict traditionalism.
The roots of Oakley Hall can be traced to the late 1990s in New York, when Sullivan was known in the outré rock band Oneida. Think Neu!, Sonic Youth and Steppenwolf playing together on the same stage at the same time, and you might get the picture. It was madness.
But early in the new millennium, Sullivan left Oneida in the most amicable split of all time (Oakley Hall is on the Oneida-run Brah records). He had been working with his folk/country side project, but decided to start up a band that could bridge the gap between his two endeavors. In his own miniature version of the 1960s movement from psychedelic to country-rock, he formed Oakley Hall.
In 2003, the band released a self-titled debut. These days they call it alt-country, but it was much more down and dirty than genre icons Will Oldham or Wilco. Its sweet, twangy melodies were carried by layers of distortion. Surely this was what honky-tonk must have sounded like when it first appeared. It was the sound of lettin’ loose.
Back in ‘03, Oakley Hall was really just a loose coalition of musicians orbiting around a few core members. Live, the band could have 10 people on stage, even though few would hang around (save for Sullivan and fiddle player Claudia Mogel, all of those musicians have left). It worked for a while, but eventually Sullivan decided that Oakley Hall would have to become more stable, and he needed to bring in more ideas and sounds.
The new band crystallized while writing the material that would make up Second Guessing. Sullivan and Mogel were joined by singer-guitarist Rachel Cox. Members that had been more part-time — Fred Wallace on guitar and lap steel, bassist Jesse Barnes and drummer Greg Anderson — committed to the band. The group now had an embarrassment of riches: six veteran musicians who can write, sing and play. It’s easy to hear the changes in their new, subtler songs. “We’re tighter now,” says Sullivan. “We’re a little less loose. We can find details.”
On their newest record, Gypsum Strings, they expand even further. “Lazy Susan” is a rocker with a thick layer of vintage keyboards. “Confidence Man” is an insane psychedelic jam that at first listen is not unlike Sullivan’s work with Oneida.
Although even in the craziest moments the band has some countrified harmonies, when they feel like it, Oakley Hall can get about as far as you can get from the country sound.
How can you turn tradition so upside down and still be a roots band? How can you be country without always sounding country? Well, you hold onto the front-porch approach that is the basis of roots music. It’s from an era before the guitar god, before the pop singer. It is from an era of community. It’s getting to know your bandmate like you know family.
The band doesn’t worship any single member, instead bowing to whoever has the right idea at that moment. They trade solos. They trade vocals. They trade songs. And then, when the time is right, it all comes to a head — everybody is singing, everybody is playing, and it all sounds perfect.
“You should value the band over the individual,” Sullivan says. “You should love the collaborative process. You should have it be a democracy.”
Joey Burns, one of the two mainstays of Calexico, had a couple of minutes to spare with LEO recently. When he comes to Headliners this week, his band will comprise six individuals who can switch instruments from song to song, and Burns just loves that. “There’ll be two horns, and those players will also fill in on all sorts of things … guitar, melodica, keyboards,” he said.
The embrace of instrumental and arrangement variety has been the hallmark of this band, and Burns isn’t buying any recent opinion that Calexico is shifting toward more traditional song structures (a description that’s been applied to their recent album, Garden Ruin).
“On record, the songwriting has always been traditional. Maybe it’s become more narrative,” he said. “But maybe it’s just that this is the first album without an instrumental.” He also noted that he and Calexico cohort John Convertino first came together in an instrumental band.
Burns dived into discussions about individual songs that make for an infectious enthusiasm. “Nom de Plume” is the first Calexico piece with plucked banjo (as opposed to playing one with a bow — they busted that odd cherry long ago). Album producer J.D. Foster asked Burns to solicit some friends into translating the song’s lyrics to French for the final version heard on record.
This sort of convoluted alignment of arrangement experiments and communal idea chasing is standard operating procedure for Burns, Convertino & company. Maybe that harkens back to when they named their band after a cross-border town (though it’s the California-Mexican border, and weren’t we just talking about lyrics in French?). The current album (official album, that is — the band does its own indie small-pressing of recordings that they sell only at concerts) was put together near Bisbee, Ariz., and that town inspired a lighthearted-but-observant trifle called “Bisbee Blue.”
Plenty of Calexico’s music delves into darker places, though. And many listeners only discover that after repeated listens and poring through the lyric sheet. When asked if he considers himself an optimistic songwriter, Burns said, “Musically, yes. Lyrically —
— on occasion, yes. I like that contrast.” —T.E. Lyons
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